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Rats, bluffs and Vladimir Putin

In considering U.S. strategy for Ukraine, fully understanding what drives Russian President Vladimir Putin is vital. Putin has often mentioned that as a young man in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), he once cornered a rat. The point of the story is that the rat turned on Putin, causing him to beat a quick retreat.  

The takeaway is whether the 70-year-old Putin is the young man today who realized that discretion was the better part of valor in confronting the rodent and withdrew. Or is Putin the cornered rat, in this case over Ukraine, that responds aggressively and attacks his enemy?

The second issue is bluff. While Putin did not directly assert that he would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, he did promise that Russia would not hesitate to employ “all available means” in defense of the motherland. His proxies, from academics to a former president and prime minister, Dimitry Medvedev, have been more direct in issuing that threat. And the Western press has been flashing warnings that a desperate Putin could resort to the nuclear option as his only way of “winning” in Ukraine. But would he?

Too often, foreign personalities are regarded as if they were American, behaving as we would and not as they will. This lack of knowledge of other cultures has often been fatal. Vietnam, the second Iraq War and Afghanistan are monuments to these flaws. 

The political reality is that any effort to understand an adversary’s thinking often can be taken as capitulation or appeasement. That’s because recognizing actions on our part that provoked or caused events that were detrimental to our interests in essence assigns blame to us, something few administrations are happy to do. But seeking deeper understanding of others should never be taken as excusing adversarial responses merely to explain them.

From the time Putin became acting president on New Year’s Day 2000, he felt that the U.S. and the West ignored and demeaned him and Russia. The U.S.’s lack of respect and disregard for Russia explains why, in Putin’s view, the U.S. took a series of decisions (including NATO expansion; the second invasion of Iraq; and the arbitrary abrogation of the ABM [anti-ballistic missile] and INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaties) that Putin deemed intolerable.

That unease began in 2001, when President George W. Bush began America’s military transformation, making space and anti-missile defense top priorities and undoing, in Putin’s view, the strategic bargain that had been struck between the U.S., USSR and, after 1991,  Russia.

But it was Bush’s decision to launch Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 and then the inexcusable blunder made in offering NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine at NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest,  Romania, that hardened Putin’s distrust of the U.S. Putin probably knew or assumed that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and correctly reasoned that the war would throw the world into chaos. The NATO summit convinced Putin that the West and especially the U.S. no longer took Russia as a serious player and would act without any consideration of Moscow’s interests.

The intervention into Georgia later in 2008 and then Ukraine in 2014 were unmistakable signs of Putin’s angst and anger over the West’s foreign policy. Further, Putin’s assessment of political disorder in the West, manifested by the Trump presidency and since, convinced him that weakness in the U.S. and NATO could be challenged with minimal risk.

Russia’s military exercises on Ukraine’s borders in 2020 and 2021 and his demands not to expand NATO further east, not to offer membership to Ukraine and for a new strategic framework for Europe were rejected in late 2021. Whether his 2022 invasion was deterrable or not remains unknown.

As Sun Tzu counseled, know your enemy. Clearly, in this case, we did not. So, is Putin the young man or the rat? Is his bluff real or hollow? The Biden White House is wrestling with these questions. Given no clear answer, the solution should be to hedge.

That means providing Ukraine sufficient equipment and support for conducting full combined operations. It means making certain China knows that if Putin were to go nuclear, almost certainly so would Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. A line of diplomacy with Moscow must be opened now. Otherwise, Putin could be the rat. And, worse, we could be the young Putin.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Operation Iraqi Freedom Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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